Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Living with dissatisfaction

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Ben Hecht

Novelists come in all shapes and sizes, but if they’re united by anything, it’s two qualities of mind. The first is an irrational optimism, a sense that despite all evidence to the contrary, they’ll conquer the odds and become one of the thousand or fewer authors on the planet to make a living from writing fiction alone. The second is ambition, which can be both a blessing and a curse. Ambition is the only force that can carry any sane person through the effort of writing an entire novel: a more rational being would have given up long before, and many often do. We have ambition to thank for the novels that stand as towering works of the human spirit, for the most crassly calculated commercial fiction, and for everything in between: if money were the only thing on a writer’s mind, after all, there are easier ways of making a living. It all comes down to a desire to be known as a writer, or to leave something meaningful behind when we’re gone, and while other factors—an urgent story to tell, the need to express our innermost thoughts and feelings, a sense of emptiness when we contemplate a life without some sustaining project—it’s ambition that keeps it going and carries it home.

That’s the good thing about ambition: it comes out of nowhere and rarely leaves a true writer entirely, and without it, the shelves of our homes and libraries would be bare. But there’s a dark side to it as well. It’s the voice in a writer’s head that tells him that he’ll never be as good as he has the potential to be, and one that quickly takes for granted what he’s already accomplished. Speaking of romantic love, the great screenwriter Ben Hecht once wrote:

If you ask a man who many times he has loved—unless there is love in his heart at the moment—he is likely to answer, “Never.” He will say, if his heart is loveless, that often he had thought he loved, but that, victim or hero of love, he was mistaken. For only love can believe in love—or even remember it.

Change a word here and there, and that sums up how most writers feel about what they’ve done in the past. When you’re working on a novel, it seems urgent, inevitable, the most important thing in the world; when it’s done, even in published form, it starts to feel a little dead, and whatever pleasure it once gave you is quickly swallowed up by the drive to move on to the next big thing. That voice in your head is implacable and coolly rational: What you’ve done so far is all very well and good, it says, but what have you done for me lately?

Philip Roth

Learning to live with those two sides of ambition is one of the hardest challenges faced by a writer, or any creative artist. I’ve been living with an unquenchable ambition for as long as I can remember, and brother, it’s exhausting. I love writing, but as with so many other authors before me, the act itself gets tied up with other, less wholesome emotions, like competition or dissatisfaction. It doesn’t help to remind myself that if I’m dissatisfied with what I’ve done so far, it has less to do with my achievements themselves then with an ingrained state of mind: I’m the kind of person who is never going to be entirely satisfied, even if I tick off every item on my literary bucket list. I even catch myself wondering what it would be like to turn it all off. If there were a switch I could press to take my ambitions away, leaving me content with what I’ve accomplished and willing to live in relative peace, there are times when I’d be tempted to flip it. When someone like Philip Roth decides that it’s no longer worth the trouble and walks away, it makes headlines, but Roth only did what most writers, in their heart of hearts, often wish they could do, if only the voices in their heads would allow it.

And the only solution I’ve ever found is to refocus that ambition on the one place where it can do a bit of good, regardless of its external results: on the way you spend your time from one minute to the next. We may not be able to control what happens to our work once we’re done with it, or how we’ll feel about it if we ever see it in print, but we can at least make sure that our free time is spent thinking about the things we care about and pursuing the activities that matter to us. In some ways, that’s the most worthwhile ambition at all—the determination to own the time that we’re afforded, not just on the level of constructing a body of work that will outlive us, but on spending the next available hour doing something we find interesting. It’s quite possible that, like Hecht’s hypothetical lover, we won’t be satisfied with what we’ve produced, but the time invested in that pursuit can’t be wasted, however many mistakes we make along the way. Whenever I feel less than content with something I’ve done, I stop and ask myself a slightly different question: Am I happy with the way I spent the time it took? And if the response is yes, then I’ve got my real answer.

Written by nevalalee

December 9, 2013 at 9:05 am

Posted in Writing

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